The Sameness Tree

I am, should you have been kind enough to follow this blog, still here. I’ve just been a little busy of late. Hello again.

If you are one of those kind people, you might have gathered that I am fond of trees. So it might come as a bit of a surprise to know that I loathe pine trees. Despise them.

I’m sure that if I had to see them in their natural home, marching in serried ranks over the jagged slopes of the frozen north, I would feel differently. But they don’t belong here. They don’t fit in. A pine tree in Southern Africa stands out like a middle-aged accountant at a nightclub. You want to walk up to it and gently explain that everyone, including itself, would be much more comfortable if it just went home.

You're not fooling anyone...

You’re not fooling anyone…

It’s not that pine trees are exotics. There are many trees from foreign climes that fit in just fine. Jacarandas and Brazilian pepper trees don’t look out of place at all (unless you’re a botanist- they just happen to be rather nasty invaders). Pine trees just don’t look right. They are jagged and angular, like the jagged, angular, glacier hewn-contours of their natural home. They are built for one thing; snow.

We don’t really have any snow. Or jagged contours. The glaciers left us alone. Our contours are rounded and soft and ancient, and sometimes a little stark. And so, like pets who grow to look like their owners, the trees that fit in here are rounded and soft, and sometimes a little stark. What they are not are spikey, uniform, angular fascists of trees. Like pine trees.

But maybe I’m being a little unfair. Because the cardinal sin of pine trees is not the way they look. It’s what they happen to be useful for; paper.

Behold! The distilled soul of a pine tree.

Behold! The distilled soul of a pine tree.

We don’t have much in the way of indigenous forest here in South Africa. But what we do have is simply breath-taking. Our forests are dark and damp and crawling with life. Soaring ancient giants like Yellowwoods and Stinkwoods lift a cathedral ceiling over clear, dripping streams and creeping ferns, and everything is softened by moss and fungus.

Nice.

Nice.

And noise. So much noise. Cicadas buzz, water drips, monkeys chatter, birds chirp and shriek, duikers crash unseen through the undergrowth, and the trees themselves creak and groan at the slightest breeze. But it is a curious sort of noise, somehow muted and respectful, like old men talking in a library. Until some bastard rips out the forest and replaces it with pine trees. Then there is no noise but the wind.

Paper. Computer age be damned, the world still runs on paper. We need it. And paper comes from pine trees. So we need pine trees. Pine trees just happen to grow in the same places that indigenous forests grow. The paper companies claim to follow strict environmental guidelines, but I have walked through their forests and crossed the bones of the world they replaced; old drainage lines, once dripping with water, now barren and dry, where the ancient forests would have been thickest. A world once fit for Arthur’s Avalon now fit only for crows.

Less nice.

Less nice.

The pine trees don’t just take over the forests, they take over the high grasslands, too, with their own sounds and life. And they replace it all with something unforgivable. Sameness. Uniformity. Every pine tree looks like every other pine tree. And as you move through them, they seem to go on forever; one tree, one pattern, for miles, and miles, and miles. And I hate them for it. Until I need to write a cheque. Or dry my hands. Or read a book. My only defence for my hypocrisy is that being unreasonable has always been one of the simplest of human pleasures. Angular, needle leaved bastards.

Which is all a rather depressing (and characteristically long-winded) introduction to my rather more cheerful post. Trees. Lowveld trees. Ones I don’t hate. Mopane trees. That’s mow-par-knee said fast. These;

Nice again.

Nice again.

Nice, aren’t they?  You might have noticed something interesting about them; Sameness. Uniformity. Every Mopane tree looks like every other Mopane tree. And as you move through them, they seem to go on forever; one tree, one pattern, for miles, and miles, and miles. It’s all rather fetching.

I am, I must confess, being a little disingenuous here, but it’s my blog and I’m allowed; the Mopanes in that picture are superstars. Brad Pitt Mopanes. Johnny Depp Mopanes. And they’re not from here. They grow like that way up in the Northern part of their range. Here, In South Africa’s Lowveld, we get Danny DeVito Mopanes. They look like this.

I'm on the fence on this one.

I’m on the fence on this one.

Which is rather less impressive. To be fair, we do have odd, isolated patches of superstars, like those in the first picture, which are rather poetically referred to as cathedral Mopane, but the vast majority of what we’ve got is more like the second, referred to rather less poetically as Mopane scrub. And we have lots of it. Stands of Mopane make pine plantations look rather insignificant. They don’t cover whole mountainsides, they cover whole countries. And where Mopanes grow, almost nothing else grows.

So why am I being so mean about the pine trees, and so nice about the Mopanes? Is grinding sameness not just grinding sameness? No. It is not.

There is one fundamental difference between the two; an ecosystem gets ripped out to make way for a pine plantation, whereas Mopane scrub is an ecosystem. Mopanes dominate vast swathes of real estate not because they have pushed out the competition but because nothing else will grow there. They have a remarkably high tolerance for shallow, poorly drained, highly alkaline soils. Even they have their limitations though; we are stuck with the scrub because the soil they grow in here is so thin.

Despite the grinding sameness of a hundred kilometre long patch of Mopane scrub, an individual Mopane is actually quite attractive. The Mopane is sometimes called the butterfly tree, because of these;

Squint. And use your imagination.

Squint. And use your imagination.

The leaves have evolved like that for a reason. Water. The parts of Africa where they grow are hot, and subject to long periods of drought. Those leaves have more in common with butterflies than you might think; during the hottest, most sun-blasted times of day, the Mopanes close their wings, and line them up so that the sun falls on their narrow edge, letting the tree hold onto its precious water.

This has a rather curious unintended outcome. Even the broad, spreading cathedral Mopanes make lousy shade trees. Yup, you can find yourself in the middle of a sea of leafy green trees with nowhere to shelter from the sun. The leaves aren’t just a nice shape. They come in nice colours, too. The Mopane is one of the few Lowveld trees that puts on a decent display of autumn colour.

The colours are OK, but the accessories are spectacular.

The colours are OK, but the accessories are spectacular.

Mopane seed-pods are kinda cool. They are flat, kidney-shaped pods that turn from emerald green to light brown, and fit in nicely with the leaves. They are, however, a little dull. Until you open them up and find a tiny human brain nestled inside.

BRAAAINS!

BRAAAINS!

The wood is kinda cool, too. It is a beautiful, rich, red colour, hard, and heavy. It is so hard that it is rather difficult to work with, but the extra effort is worthwhile, because Mopane wood is termite resistant. It’s used for fence-posts and furniture and parquet floors. And bagpipes. Obviously. But making bagpipes out of Mopane wood is a senseless waste. You are supposed to burn it.

Mopane wood burns for ages, and leaves behind hot, long lasting embers. And it has a glorious and evocative aroma. There are few better woods for making a braai (barbecue), right down to the mandatory wait for the coals to be ready for cooking. Being forced to sit around chatting and drinking beer in a blazing African sunset while your fire burns down to readiness is not necessarily a bad thing.

How long are we going to have to endure this torture!?!?

How long are we going to have to endure this torture!?!?

But Mopanes are not about usefulness. They’re about something else. Life. Those pine plantations I was going on about earlier are deserts. Nothing here is equipped to use them. They have no seeds or fruits that our monkeys or birds could live on, and nothing here can digest pine-needles. There isn’t even any undergrowth to speak of; the pine needles coat the ground and leave it too acidic to let anything else grow beneath them.

Mopanes couldn’t be more different. The endless Mopane is bursting with life. Mopanes are rich in protein. They aren’t particularly sought after, since the leaves are quite resinous, but when times get tough, they come into their own. They are supposed to be deciduous, but there always seem to be at least some green leaves about, and even if the leaves have all fallen, they are still eaten. Which means that Mopane scrub is a sought-after habitat for large herbivores.

Don't worry. Once that rhino sees how big Geoff's lens is he's sure to back down.

Don’t worry. Once that rhino sees how big Geoff’s lens is he’s sure to back down.

It is not, however, a good place to go looking for them. The Mopanes might be letting all that sunlight through, but that sunlight is coming down from above. When you’re out on a game-drive, you are looking from the side. And you’re not going to see much. To drive through Mopane scrub is to drive between two opaque green screens. A creature as big as an elephant or a buffalo could be standing just a dozen or so feet off the road, and you would be none the wiser. Unless they step out in front of you.

I fear Mopanes. Because of these;

Peekaboo!

Peekaboo!

Yup. The creature that specialises in stepping out of the Mopane in front of me is the elephant. Elephants aren’t quite as dangerous as you might have been led to believe. If you treat them with respect, keep your distance, and move slowly and deliberately, they tend to leave you alone. It is, however, quite hard to keep a respectful distance from a four-ton behemoth that steps from behind a screen of green into the road ten feet in front of you. Moving backward not very slowly or deliberately isn’t always an option, either; elephants are not solitary animals. Another four ton behemoth you failed to spot might just be stepping into the road ten feet behind you. At which point your best option is to slowly and deliberately curl up into a foetal position and weep.

It’s not just herbivores that lurk in the Mopane. Lions tend to avoid Mopane scrub, which means that it’s a good place to find their smaller competitors, like wild dogs and hyenas.

I said "tend to"...

I said “tend to”…

But that’s the big stuff. Stuff you can find anywhere in the Lowveld. What makes the Mopane scrub so rich is the small stuff. The deeply fissured bark and hard wood make an ideal home for any number of creatures like hole-living birds and cryptically coloured geckos and snakes.

But that’s not all. As I mentioned earlier, anything as widespread and dominant as Mopane becomes its own ecosystem. This isn’t always a good thing.

Those charming creatures are Mopane flies. Which is a curious thing to call them, since they are bees. Stingless bees. Which sounds nice, but isn’t. They make up for their lack of a sting by swarming all over you and trying to crawl into your eyes. They try to compensate for this rather annoying habit by producing honey. Tiny little bits of honey. Made, apparently, from the moisture they find in human eyes. They don’t seem to be trying too hard.

They don’t really have to. Other creatures have stepped in to take up the challenge. Who needs honey when you have manna? Yup. The stuff from the bible. Nobody really knows what manna was, but one of the more plausible theories is that it was the crystallised honeydew from scale insects that lived on tamarisks. Which just sounds silly.

It’s not, though. A sap-sucking insect called the Mopane psyllid lives on Mopane leaves in its larval stage. It covers itself in a scale of sweet tasting, crystallised resin, which is picked off the leaves and eaten the local people. It’s called Mopane manna. But that’s just a snack, not a meal. This is a meal.

Yummy!

Yummy!

That is a Mopane worm. Just one is a mouthful. But there isn’t just one. At the right time of year, there are tens of millions of the buggers. They are gathered by the locals and dried. In Lowveld towns, you can buy bags of them to snack on like potato chips from the seventh circle of hell. Don’t, though. They taste like the dried out inner-sole of a hobo’s shoe.

And look like the hobo's toenails...

And look like the hobo’s toenails…

They do, however, sound adventurous and exotic. And so, over the last few decades, a couple of adventurous and exotic restaurants have tried to work them into their menus. You can now, should the mood take you, order a steaming bowl of stewed Mopane worms. Don’t, though. They taste like the stewed inner sole of a hobo’s shoe.

Mopane worm stew goes wonderfully with a nice chardonnay. About three bottles should do the trick...

Mopane worm stew goes wonderfully with a nice chardonnay. About three bottles should do the trick…

So there you have it. There are enormous patches of scrubby, unrelenting sameness out in Africa that are brimming with life and unpalatable delicacies. There is a rest-camp in the Kruger Park called Mopane, on the crest of a hill overlooking a large dam and surrounded by a sea of butterfly-shaped green leaves. If you visit the park for the first time, don’t stay there. You won’t see the forest, or the life it holds, for the trees.

But if you do choose to stay there, stick around for a while. Slowly but surely, all that life will start to reveal itself to you. You will start to see the birds in their holes, and the giant potato-chip worms, and the manna from heaven.

And maybe, just as the relentless sameness of it all starts to get to you, a four ton behemoth will step out in front of you as another one appears in your rear-view mirror. And you will wish, as you slowly (and deliberately) curl up into a foetal position and start to weep, that you were driving through a pleasantly barren pine plantation.

05-August_017

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30 thoughts on “The Sameness Tree

  1. I feel exactly as you do about pines … when I’m in South Africa. After moving to Washington State, in the US, it took me a long time to learn to like seeing them growing wild – but I will say they are rather lovely when they’re covered in snow, and also when they aren’t all in straight lines.

  2. annette48 says:

    You’re getting a lot of comments in defense of pines and I just thought I’d weigh in.

    While I absolutely see your point about pine plantations in ecosystems where they don’t belong, I find myself saddened for the trees that are forced to live in a place so alien to them.

    Don’t hate the trees for the failings of humans. Everything you describe about the Mopane forests has its counterpart in our natural pine forests in the US, Colorado to be exact. The diversity of life here is stunning and, though I’ve lived in our little patch of it for nearly a quarter of a century, there is something new to see crawling or walking or flying each time we step out our door.

    When I began reading this piece, I couldn’t fathom what you meant when you said that pines are uniform and identical until I saw your photo. I wouldn’t be able to find one tree, in the hundreds of acres that surround my house, that could come close to being the same as any other.

    Your pine forests are barren and feed nothing that lives on your continent only because they shouldn’t live on your continent.

    Your Mopane sounds amazing and wondrous and I hope that I get to see it some day. Maybe someday you could come see our forests (ponderosa, pinion, juniper, douglas fir… you get the picture), you could pitch a tent in our backyard! Though sometimes, our own brand of large mammals (not always herbivores) have a habit of emerging from the oakbrush (our scrubby version of the mighty oaks of other climes). Yes, elephants are big but there’s nothing like the adrenaline rush of looking out the kitchen window and staring into the eyes of a black bear!

    Thanks so much for the entertaining and thoughtful writing. I’m excited to read your work each time a post appears in my email.

    • 23thorns says:

      I suppose, ultimately, that there isn’t much of a difference between a pine plantation and a field of corn. It’s all just a matter of scale. We aren’t growing them to look pretty, we’re growing them because we need them. It’s just a tragedy that they grow best in places that used to have indigenous forests…

  3. Don’t know if its still there but when I was growing up in Malawi they had planted a pine forest on Zomba (I believe they planned to make paper out of them) However the trees were abandoned and in a few years had actually developed into a pleasant forest with birds and other critters inhabiting it. Later they introduced rainbow trout for the anglers to catch. Watching a fisherman in waders casting a fly in the stream amidst a pine forest like we were in Northern California was kind of surreal. Then we’d hike back down the mountain and chase the baboons out of our yard :-)

    • 23thorns says:

      We pass through the same sort of area on the way down to the bush; pine plantations, trout fishing, and quaint little English hotels just an hour or two away from the heat and the dust of the bush…

  4. I hadn’t thought about actually disliking a tree! Having read all about the mopane tree now, I wonder if perhaps I might dislike it – elephants popping out of it, ‘flies’ and mopane worms (which look big enough to be scary!). As for pine trees – I quite like them, which is just as well as there are so many of them here.

  5. Eileen says:

    You make learning so much fun!! Great posts as always. I would never have imagined that there were pine plantations in Africa.
    Truly unnatural.
    We never seem to learn.
    In Tennessee in the US the state was still planting Kudzu along the roads after it had already eaten up Georgia and clogged its streams. Whole forests are simply overgrown, top to bottom with it now. And as far as I know it does not even have any economic value.

    • annette48 says:

      You know, Eileen. Since living in Memphis, TN a while ago, I’ve given Kudzu a lot of thought, even did some research. It is actually an amazing plant and can be used to make everything from clothing to flour… even paper! Though I’ve left life in the South, I’ve often thought that it would be a terrific business opportunity for someone to sell their services as kudzu removal and then take all that stubborn, fibrous material away to be turned into all manner of things to be sold. Someone could make money on both ends of the equation and maybe find some use for this folly of the Army Corps of Engineers (since the vines climb up things, it isn’t even useful for the erosion control for which it was imported in the first place!). Kudzu is actually just as versatile as hemp without the controversy.

    • 23thorns says:

      I’ve seen pictures of areas overgrown with Kudzu. It looks like a large-scale version of mould growing on old food…

  6. narf77 says:

    Mr 23Thorns! I didn’t pick you as being pinist! I have seen more than my fair share of African trees and quite a few of them are angular prickly customers indeed! “Pines” constitute a HUGE portion of the plant world and are represented on almost every continent including your own. As a conifer lover (LOVER…ADORER…DEFENDER!!!) I am here to be like the Lorax and “stand for the trees” Mr 23Thorns!

    To be fair, the only reason that pines turn into toilet paper is through human intervention. Pines are just minding their own business, growing (apparently waiting for snow…) when suddenly the top pest species on earth cuts them free from this mortal coil and expends an inordinate amount of energy processing their mortal remains wasting enormous amounts of water, time, energy and resources in the process in order to turn them into something that is “thrown away” to create yet ANOTHER problem for the earth to have to deal with…gotta say we should be turning our piney angst to the real perpetrators of the crime sir!

    Pines don’t plant themselves in ordered rows and spray those rows with toxic chemicals on a regular basis to keep them looking schmick…they grow in seral communities as part of ecosystems almost as ancient as those in Africa just colder. Pines are the Mopanes winter cousins just transposed someplace else. Blaming pines for plantations is like blaming checkout operators for supermarkets not selling cars…unfair and misdirected sir!

    I am as anti plantation as you are. We get stuck with pines AND Eucalpyts. Both of them sapping the soil of nutrients and moisture. That doesn’t make me hate pines or eucalypts though, it makes me question a society that will allow a small percentage of uber rich profiteers from comandeering our environment to their own advantage with little to no recrimination or revolt

    In the right place pines have a lot of wildlife that relies on them as well…the point is “in the right place”. Plants evolved to be where they are for a reason. “WE” move them around and cause problems. Remember those South African weeds that plague us here in Australia? Well I am quite sure they didn’t just up and pack themselves off on a trade wind and fly over here unassisted…the root problem of just about every plant invader (weed) on earth is man. I rest my case sir!

    • 23thorns says:

      Our national tree is actually a conifer; the Yellowwood. It is, however, trying admirably hard to look like a normal tree. The leaves have flattened out and widened, and the “cones” have developed a fleshy yellow covering just like proper fruits, in a process referred to as “aspirational evolution”.
      All jokes aside,it really is the people who are the problem. During a long term experiment, it was found that yellowwood plantations were as productive and economical as pine or eucalypt plantations, and used less water. But making the change would have cost a chunk of money, so…

  7. Art Brûlant says:

    Yes our tendency to move things around doesn’t always (maybe rarely) enhance. I had some of the same feelings re pine trees when in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe, though even here in the cold, snowy north the pine tree can look odd if it is part of a plantation of sameness. On the other hand the White Pine in its natural setting sometimes approaches the Baobab in the feelings it evokes for me.

    Loved the Mopane forests.

    • 23thorns says:

      I think the key thing here is that even an odd looking pine plantation in the frozen North will have an ecosystem that has evolved to cope with it. Here it becomes a desert…

  8. I too hate pine trees and for pretty much the exact same reasons you’ve given. They overtake and invade our local ecosystems. Koalas are adept at turning the unpalatable leaves of a eucalypt into food but even they baulk at pines. And in a country so prone to bushfires, introducing an extremely flammable tree like a pine is just stupid in my not so humble opinion. The pine plantations grown for wood harvest not too far from me are lovely in summer when they smell sensational but the trees are also found growing along the edges of what should be either plantations of local species (at least Australian local if not entirely indigenous to the area) or in the natural forest of the region. The pines are trying to take over the world. :(

    • 23thorns says:

      Weep for us- we’ve got the pines from one side of the world and the eucalypts from the other. I’ve never seen a plantation of trees indigenous to South Africa…

  9. interesting take on pines ! I love pines but not plantations and I hate when things get planted where they don’t really belong – like pines in most of western washington in the pacific northwest – too wet (though there is that Olympic rain shadow). They turn into scraggly old things that never do well.

  10. Lyle Krahn says:

    You really need to visit a place that has natural pine forests – it would completely change your view on pine trees. As soon as you add the word plantation at the end, it sounds well … planted. You may have guessed I love pine trees but I’m sure your Mopane forests are nice too.

    • 23thorns says:

      That’s the problem right there. Any ecosystem has it’s own beauty, but we didn’t get the ecosystem, just the trees, planted in unnaturally ordered ranks. No owls, no deer, no bison, no snow. I’d love to see them out of captivity…

  11. Dalo 2013 says:

    Nice of you to return, but being from the Pacific Northwest in the USA, I love my pine trees. Amid the Olympic National Forest, they are amazing…but you bring up many hilarious and good points. The smell of pine, and pine nuts are great :-) One day will have to make it down to S.Africa and see why it’s so special. Great return post!

    • 23thorns says:

      I’m sure there’s a whole ecosystem based around them there, too. Here, though, it’s just the trees…

      • Dalo 2013 says:

        Very true…the photo you have of just the pine trees alone looked miserable and out of place. It is funny, in HK there is a place that has a bunch of pines as well ~ very out of place (miserable as well), but I love walking through them for the smell of the pine. I guess I feel sorry for them also, as they sure don’t belong there :-)

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